Friday, August 28, 2020

Where did these Black Women Writers courses come from?

At hundreds of colleges across the country, English departments offer "Black Women Writers" courses. It's been this way for a few decades now. Those courses are integral to African American literature curriculums. The classes deserve more attention in considerations of African American literary studies and general interest in the work of Black women writers. 

A few years back, I was researching information on African American literature course offerings at multiple universities. I was not surprised to find that the most frequently offered African American literature classes were survey courses. I was intrigued, though, to learn how pervasive Black Women Writers courses were. 

Here at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), the department has been offering a Black Women Writers course since at least 1990 (perhaps even earlier). We are hardly unique, and our department was not one of the pioneers.  

Alice Walker is often credited with teaching the first Black Women Writers courses. Prior to teaching the classes, she had experiences that primed her for leading the way. She began her undergraduate career at Spelman College in 1961, and she later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, where she graduated in 1965. 

After publishing her debut volume of poetry Once (1968), Alice Walker worked at Jackson State and Tougaloo

Among others, she was reading Black women writers and pursuing a career as one. Her experiences in Black spaces were key, especially her presence at HBCUs. In 1968-1969, she was a writer-in-residence at Jackson State University (then known as Jackson State College), and in 1970-1971, she was writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College. At those two Black schools in Jackson, Mississippi, she was formulating or solidifying ideas for classes featuring African American women writers.     

In 1972, Walker moved to Boston, and taught at Wellesley and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She taught courses on Black Women Writers at both institutions. In How We Get Free (2017), in an interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Barbara Smith recalls that she audited one of those courses with Walker at the UMass Boston campus. Walker was offering the class for adult learners. 

Take a moment to think on that: Walker, who was 28 years old at the time, offered a course on Black Women Writers at one college for undergraduates and soon after that, she offered the course in the same city, this time for adult learners. 

Walker's class was an important gateway. "That’s where I first got really exposed to Black women’s literature," said Smith, who is two years younger than Walker. And it didn't stop there. The very next year, Smith got a teaching job at Emerson College, also in Boston, and what did she promptly start teaching? Yes, a Black Women Writers course.

In her first semester as a college professor, Smith taught three classes: English composition, African American literature, and Black Women Writers.  

So Smith takes a Black Women Writers course in 1972; she teaches one in 1973, and in 1974, she co-founded the Combahee River Collective. In 1977, along with Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, Smith co-wrote the well-known "Combahee River Collective Statement," and she also published "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism." 

The 1970s witnessed the publication and circulation of works by many outstanding Black women creative artists -- Toni Morrison. Maya Angelou. Gayl Jones. Jayne Cortez. Toni Cade Bambara. Octavia Butler. Sonia Sanchez. Look: the list goes on and on. Folks who were thinking of teaching a Black Women Writers course at that time had so many wonderful options. 

Margaret Walker (pointing) with Mari Evans, Sonia Sanchez at Phillis Wheatley Festival, 1973. photograph © Roy Lewis

It was also during this moment that people began returning to the works of Zora Neale Hurston, who has since become a mainstay in Black Women Writers courses. And consider this, if we're telling the history of recovery projects related to Black women writers, then we should return to Mississippi and mention another Walker -- Margaret Walker. In 1973, Walker organized and hosted the Phillis Wheatley Festival at Jackson State University.

The conference was on Wheatley, but goodness, the participants represented an extraordinary gathering of more than twenty Black women writers, including Margaret Walker, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Paula Giddings, Audre Lorde, and Carolyn Rodgers.  

From the 1970s up through the 1980s, a range of scholars contributed to the development of African American literary studies and the critical discourse on Black Women Writers. Some of those scholars included Barbara Smith, Deborah McDowell, Mary Helen Washington, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Barbara Christian, bell hooks, Cheryl Wall, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Hey, that's just a few of the folks. 

So they're reading and teaching works by Margaret Walker and Alice Walker, Sanchez and Morrison, Gayl Jones and Octavia Butler, and publishing scholarly articles and books. They're also delivering papers on Black women writers at conferences across the country. Like Barbara Smith after taking that class with Walker, folks are becoming exposed to Black women's literature. 

So the classes on Black Women Writers offered at SIUE from 1990 - 2020 are routed to those specific histories of courses, scholarship, and gatherings from the 1970s. The courses on Black Women Writers offered at Rutgers, University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University, Princeton, Georgia Southern, and hundreds of other institutions are routed to those histories. It's where these Black Women Writers courses come from. 


1 comment:

Beatrice Abisola Akinsiku said...

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